“Is the small town a place, truly, of the world, or is it no more than something out of a boy’s dreaming? Out of his love of all things not of death made? All things somewhere beyond the dust, rust, and decay, beyond the top, beyond all sides, beyond bottom: outside, around, over, under, within?”
– William Saroyan
Linus Pauling’s boyhood home of Condon sits in central Oregon, forty miles south of the Washington border. The town is quartered by the Wasco-Heppner and John Day highways, a tiny watering hole between Idaho and the Pacific Coast.
Before becoming officially settled, the area was known as Summit Springs, a point at which offshoots of the Columbia River converged underground to form a freshwater spring used by settlers and Native Americans alike. In the mid 1870s, William Potter, a sheepherder, settled at Summit Springs. Others followed his lead and the little settlement quickly swelled in size. The town was platted in 1879 and, in 1884, the post office was established by Harry C. Condon, a young attorney from Alkali, who loaned his name to both the post office and the fledgling community. In 1890, the town had become the official seat of Gilliam County and, in 1893, was incorporated.
As early as the 1880s, the prairie around Condon (then Summit Springs) was used for grazing cattle and sheep. As the town grew, however, and a certain degree permanence was established, settlers began to consider tilling the land for small-scale farming operations. After testing their luck with Condon’s semi-arid climate, the local settlers found the richness of the prairie soil – fortified with volcanic ash – and access to fresh water ideally-suited to their agricultural pursuits. Wheat and barley quickly developed into staple crops for the locals and, during the early 1900s, Condon became known as the Wheat City, shipping more wheat than any other city of its size.
In 1905, Linus Pauling arrived in Condon with his mother, Belle, and his two sisters, Pauline and Lucile. Belle, a native of Condon, had met Pauling’s father, Herman Pauling, in 1899 when Herman had opened a drugstore in Condon, having received the backing of several Portland entrepreneurs. In late 1899, the couple was married. After having lost the support of his investors, Herman had been forced to leave Condon and travel around Oregon, taking jobs as a pharmacist wherever he could find them. After five years of impermanence, Herman brought his family back to Condon with plans to open another pharmacy, this time using his own capital.
Herman hated Condon, but recognized that it was one of the few places that offered a chance for success. In order to open his own drugstore in Portland, he needed a great deal of money – more than he could earn as a traveling pharmacist. He intended Condon to be a brief stop where he could earn the much-needed cash in an uncompetitive market. The environment was nearly unbearable, yes, but it would eventually allow him and his family a comfortable life in a more palatable location.
Linus Pauling, as a young boy, viewed Condon without any of the trepidation or dislike expressed by his father. He was impressed and pleased with life in the little town. To him, the community was a veritable Dodge City, with the principles of the West personified by the rough-and-tumble patrons of his father’s drugstore and the local drinking establishments. Biographer Thomas Hager writes
“Through Linus’s eyes, Condon was still a piece of the Wild West. The population numbered only a few hundred. Cowboys, mule skinners, and hired hands from nearby ranchers rode their horses in and drank up their pay at one of several saloons, along with a number of Scottish sheepherders, renowned for their toughness, stubbornness, hard work, and frugality, who had settled in the area. Cougars, wildcats, bears, and coyotes still outnumbered the farmers outside of town. The last remnants of the area’s ancient migratory Indian tribes appeared every year out of the hills and camped at the end of Main Street, hunting, collecting native plants for food and medicine, and gathering the wool that snagged on barbed-wire fences.”
Pauling, however, was soon to leave Condon for the more settled and developed environment of Portland, a major shipping point on the West Coast. There, Herman would open his own drugstore before succumbing to a sudden illness in 1910.
Today, the town of Condon still maintains its small stature with, according to the 2000 census, a population of approximately 800. Many of its citizens still rely on agriculture as a main source of income. While Condon, both in aesthetic and history, appears similar to many of the small towns dotting the country’s western states, it possesses a unique and surprising feature: during the 20th century, Condon was home to two Nobel Prize winners. Former resident William P. Murphy (1892-1987) won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1934 for his work with George Minto and George Whipple on the treatment of macrocytic anaemia, a disease very similar to the pernicious aenemia from which Belle Pauling died. Linus Pauling, as is more commonly-known, earned the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962.
It is easy to see how the rough, independent nature of Condon’s inhabitants shaped the young Pauling. Later in life, Pauling would frequently stand against the norm, fighting McCarthyism, aggressive militarism, and much of what America’s middle class accepted as tradition. Echoing the fiercely independent nature of his boyhood home, Pauling resisted the cries for conformity and, because of that, is viewed as one of the leading peace activists of the 20th century. In many respects he was a true product of the American West.